Rod Dickinson is a London-based artist who has been involved in
making crop circles for the last decade with two collaborators, Wil
Russell and John Lundberg. In 1998 the three of them travelled to the
South Island of New Zealand to make a crop circle for a US TV company.
The circlemakers have an extensive website at http://www.circlemakers.org
Dickinson is currently working on a project to reenact aspects of lives and deaths
of the seventies religious group The People's Temple, infamous for their mass
death in Guyana in 1978. The Jonestown Reenactment begins on 26 May at the ICA
(Institute of Contemporary Art), London. See http://www.Jonestownreenactment.org
|[left] Crop formation, Windmill Hill,
Avebury, Wiltshire, UK (1999) 300ft across
Photo: courtesy Steve Alexander
[right] Rod Dickinson, installation detail, Dominikanerkloster
Stadtakademie, Frankfurt, Germany (1999)
Photo: Axel Schneider and Home Abroad e.V.
Recently Tessa Laird conducted the following email conversation
Tessa: There's a piece of serious art criticism by John Roberts
on the circlemakers' website which I was surprised and a little disappointed
by. The writing seemed to negate the imagination unleashed by the work
itself, and the fact that you've deliberately positioned yourself in
this deliciously ambiguous space. Maybe I'm the one missing the point,
your brief interview with Terrence McKenna, also available on the site,
you start off by saying you're a "believer". Making crop circles
doesn't seem to be a "smart-arse" thing for you, it's not about "duping" the
public, but about you creating a dialogue with a range of different forces.
Roberts' piece, to me, seemed to say that anyone who "believes" in
crop circles is a new age nut with a gaping hole in their lives, a hole
he seems to have happily filled with art theory. So my question is, do
you still "believe?" Or, like me and Mulder, do you just WANT
Rod: In many ways I'm trying to avoid taking a position on my own
personal beliefs. I find other people's beliefs far more fascinating than
my own. Having said that I do have a fairly materialist view of the immaterial,
though not through scepticism or disbelief but because as an artist I deal
in 'things' and the representation of 'things'. Crop circles excited me
precisely because of their material presence. Like everyone else in the
UK who went to see them in the early nineties I was entranced by their
'there-ness'. Almost immediately after I had made the first crop circle
I realised that there was this extraordinary space that could be occupied
- and was best occupied - by artists.
This quickly became a way of being an insider to a phenomenon and inside the
social groups that 'research' crop circles. I was able to gain a totally unique
insight into their thoughts and desires - and then supply them (covertly) with
what they needed. Despite its covert nature this has evolved into a very symbiotic
process. This pattern has been repeated with many other circlemaking groups (most
of whom I am friendly with). The pattern follows a virus-like structure, mutating
and replicating where it needs to. And it is this that gives the phenomenon,
and many other so-called phenomena, the semblance of having been created by a
single intelligence; as if the phenomenon was an organism itself.
I increasingly think that this is a useful way to think about the structure of
belief in general. That sets of belief, as they are passed from individual to
individual are changed, tuned to that individual, and passed on. The key may
be that the beliefs become so finely tuned to each individual's need that they
are unable to imagine that they could exist without them. I've found this so
many times during my forays into different groups and phenomena. It is also why
I am so interested in how The People's Temple in '78 could arrive at a position
where they believed they had no alternative but death. It's my hope that the
Jonestown reenactments I'm planning later this year will journey somewhere near
This process is also clearly evident in the 'evolution' of the designs of crop
formations over the last decade - from simple circles to designs that reference
non-linear mathematics and fractals. No one individual group is responsible for
that development. Nor do any groups sit down and compare notes. Each development
is expanded and improved by another circlemaking group once they have seen it
sitting in a field (there are currently about six groups working regularly).
My exhibitions attempt to catalogue bits of these processes, and the responses
that the crop circle research groups have to these designs. As all of this takes
place far away from the gallery - engaging a whole host of participants who have
no conscious interest in art (and often don't even realise they are studying
artworks). I try to drag some of that context back into the gallery - by displaying
their material in the way it is displayed at meetings and conferences hosted
by crop circle groups. This takes the form of low-tech information displays.
Even the photos I exhibit have been taken by 'crop circle photographers'.
Tessa: So when did you get the idea of making your first circle,
and what did you need to go through to start making them a reality? I
think it's interesting that an artist's response is to want to intervene
was recently looking at a circle website with some artist friends and
their final response was "we have to make one of these". I was still
struggling with the concepts, wondering "are these real?" It
had never occurred to me that I could become an active part of the dialogue...
Rod: Before I started making circles in 199I I was already interested
in peripheral beliefs - the edges of cultural activity. At the time I was
making paintings that were derived from testimonies of schizophrenics and
people who were said to be demonically possessed. Several instances prompted
me to make my first circle, and carry on to develop it as part of my art
practice. I visited a number of circle sites that year in Wiltshire, and
on one visit I photographed this odd white disc above the circle I was
in. By that time I was convinced that the circles (relatively simple at
that time) were the work of people. So strange photographic anomalies seemed
even more surprising. This gradual realisation that the formations were
the work of human hands inevitably led to my first attempt at making a
circle. Leaving the field in the early hours of the morning with my collaborator
I remember being convinced we had made a horrible mess, and I began to
think I had been wrong, and that people couldn't in fact be responsible
for any of the formations, until I saw the local paper a couple of days
later... A well known local investigator claimed our horrible mess had
all the hallmarks of the 'genuine' phenomena, bent-but-not-broken-stalks,
flowing-crop-lay etc. My view of the circles, the people or groups that
attend them, and the media, was turned upside down. I have come to realise
it is legends and beliefs that drive these phenomena, not their material
reality. And this of course is useful if you want to disappear, or become
invisible as an artist when engaging these areas. Working this way - sometimes
covertly, involving people who often aren't interested in art, actually
working from inside a legend - seemed a fruitful path to pursue.
Tessa: On the topic of the People's Temple, is your fascination
with that episode macabre? (I imagine many of the participants will be
in irony rather than empathy mode). For example, there used to be a band
in Auckland called "Jonestown Olympics" and it was a very Gothic,
cut-yourself-up kind of outfit. Is your reenactment born out of a fascination
with the aesthetics of death or are you genuinely trying to uncover the
politics of the scenario?
Rod: My Jonestown project, whilst very different from the crop circles, follows
some of the same ideas. The large reenactment in July will take place in a park,
and involve hundreds of reenactors. Ultimately they will be people who have found
me - and the project - and want to get involved. Some of them are artists - but
most are not. In the UK historical reenactments are a part of popular culture
in a similar way to crop circles. A kind of undeclared folk art perhaps. The
Jonestown project was always going to be an in-depth journey into the People's
Temple. The reenactment in July will include a narration over the PA system (to
give the event a context) and a couple of small tableaux from Jonestown life
along with interviews with key characters over the PA system. We're also going
to do a one evening event on May the 26th to launch the project at the ICA (Institute
of Contemporary Arts). This will be a reenactment of one of Jim Jones' sermons,
which includes a 'miracle healing' which he used to perform. The healing was
a staged piece of illusionism, employing sleight of hand techniques and animal
offal in front of a congregation primed with expectation. The sermons were passionate
polemics against capitalism.
As with the circles my fascination is for the way in which representations become
confused with reality. Like the sermons the White Nights suicide ritual was a
rehearsed event. The People's Temple enacted their own suicide many times before
November 18, 1978, sometimes actually ingesting tranquilisers with no poison
- they didn't know if they would wake up again. This must have had a terrible
psychological effect. Through their enactment these representations had a direct
(and tragic) consequence for those that participated in them. (The sermons used
the staged healings to recruit and proselytise their communist/apostolic message.)
The reenactments will have this circularity as their background. Most of those
who I am in touch with who want to take part in the reenactment have some interest
in the Peoples Temple or related topics. And so far those I have spoken to at
length see this as a sincere undertaking. Whilst I am undertaking the project
with a respectful attitude, I realise that not everyone else will see it that
As a matter of interest I read in the Times on February the 19th that a company
here is planning to stage a reenactment of the final day of the Waco siege in
the US - with the US government funding it. Apparently they are not doing it
for artistic or cultural reasons but to establish the level of culpability of
the ATF in the deaths of the Branch Davidians. They appear to have a bigger budget
than me ([sterling]5,000,000).
| [left] Rod Dickinson, Craft
with Beam, pencil on canvas board (1997) 6 x 8ft.
Photo: Andy Keate
[right] Crop formation, Winton, Southland (March 1998) 300ft across.
Photo: John Lundberg
Tessa: You said earlier that the space created by the crop circle
phenomenon is "best occupied by artists". Why do you think this?
Do you really see artists as being some special breed with unique gifts?
Do you think that conscious art works can ever reach the intensity of "unconscious" works
made in an atmosphere of faith (ie. the REAL Jonestown massacre)? Finally,
do you think that all the crop circle groups characterise themselves as "artists"?
Rod: The simple fact is crop circles have always been made by artists.
Before my activities Doug Bower and Dave Chorley who started making circles
here in the UK were both landscape painters. Subsequently all of the other
circlemakers of note, except one, have been artists in one form or another
(not just visual artists - writers, photographers and designers). Having
said this I would be the last person to argue that good circles could only
be made artists. Much of my work is about excavating creative practices
that have their origins in a non-art environment.
I'm also particularly interested in the genre of drawing that has emerged from
UFO witnesses - and I've made my own contribution to that too. These areas are
interesting particularly because the artifacts do emerge in an atmosphere of
faith. They hold a profound and active social function for those that invest
in them. Sacred art works if you like. To be able to make a contribution to that
area, without being a believer myself, seems an odd and very fortunate position
to occupy. It is a way of being inside the belief system without subscribing
to it. My position as an artist allows me to reflect back on that faith and make
observations that would be otherwise impossible.
Tessa: Would you continue to be interested in making circles if
you didn't have the art community in mind for the final product (ie. the
Rod: As far as I can see the art community here is mostly composed
of very industrious and committed artists who are surrounded by mostly
stupid (and often wealthy) art dealers, gallery owners etc. who pretend
to know a lot about art and operate a kind of nightmare, conservative,
pre-capitalist feudal economy in which artists are the lowest in the food
chain. Ironic since British art is so often cited (here) as being at the
cutting edge of culture. Do I make work for these people? Not likely. Here's
to carving out a better space for artists to occupy.
Tessa Laird [Gemini Metal Pig] was born on the Sabbath Day (Bonnie and
Blythe, Good and Gay). Tessa is a writer who has avoided paying rent and
holding down a steady job for 18 months, and plans to continue to behave
this way for at least another six.